What Isn’t In Labour’s Manifesto Is More Important Than What Is

Starmer promised ‘no surprises’ - and boy, did he deliver.

by Ash Sarkar

14 June 2024

Labour’s 2024 election manifesto. Phil Noble/Reuters

The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have all released their manifestos, with Reform and the SNP’s still to come. But even though Nigel Farage is yet to wave around a document which promises, I dunno, warm beer and deportations for all, the Tories have found themselves dropping below Reform in the polls for the very first time. It’ll go lower.

Alas, poor Rishi. Despite promising tax cutstransphobia, and national service for the feckless young, he’s still being outgunned by the reactionaries to his right.

Not that it matters, because it’d either take the biggest polling error in human history (or Keir Starmer falling into a wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant) for the Conservatives to form a government, but the credibility of the Tory manifesto has been torn to shreds. There was no mention of the spending cuts, worth up to £20bn, that the government announced in the March budget. Beyond the promise to increase NHS funding above inflation (which it always gets anyway), there was nothing to suggest a spending plan for health and social care.

And even Rishi’s headline promises look a bit wobbly up close. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, cast a quizzical eye over the proposed £17bn worth of tax cuts funded by squeezing the welfare budget and cracking down on tax avoidance. “Those are definite giveaways paid for by uncertain, unspecific and apparently victimless savings. Forgive a degree of scepticism.”

So, what about Labour? At last we’ve found a pledge that Starmer didn’t break – he promised no surprises in the manifesto, and indeed, there’s nothing in there which could be described as new or exciting. There’s 6,500 new teachers for secondary schools, paid for by slapping VAT on private school fees. There’s a Green Prosperity Plan, which includes a National Wealth Fund, funded by a combination of borrowing and imposing a windfall tax on energy giants. While everyone (ok, me) loves a good bit of industrial strategy, and wouldn’t turn down £7.5bn a year in investment if it’s on a plate, what’s in the manifesto is a far cry from the £28bn a year promised by Labour in 2021. Apparently “fiscal rules come first”, according to Starmer. I’m sure that quote will age brilliantly, another decade or so into the climate crisis.

When it comes to the other pricey stuff, like adult social care, Labour’s manifesto gets vague and waffley. In 2019, Labour committed to setting up a National Care Service, with firm commitments like free personal care for older people and doubling the number of people receiving publicly funded care packages. But this time around, it’s merely a promise to begin “a programme of reform” to create an NCS, a “fair pay agreement” in the care sector, plus some other stuff which is basically free or happening already. It’s striking that Labour finds itself to the right of former austerity hawks like Ed Davey on this, who promises free personal care and a higher minimum wage for carers in the Lib Dem manifesto.

It’s a low bar, but Labour’s manifesto is certainly more credible than the Conservatives’. But, like the Tories, there’s an awful lot it’s not saying – and it’s probably more important than what’s on paper. Despite vowing “no return to austerity”, there’s a conspicuous silence (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) about the billions of pounds worth of cuts to unprotected services promised by the government back in March. The party has promised new teachers, dentists, and doctors, but hasn’t said how much it’s willing to cough up in public sector pay to ease the staff retention crisis. What it wants to do is going to be more expensive than it’s currently willing to say. And having both pledged to stick with the Tories’ deficit reduction plan, and not to raise income tax, VAT, National Insurance, or Corporation Tax, there isn’t an obvious sense of how it’s going to pay for it.

As Johnson of the IFS says: “Delivering genuine change will almost certainly also require putting actual resources on the table. And Labour’s manifesto offers no indication that there is a plan for where the money would come from to finance this.”

Starmer has, however, left himself some wriggle room. In Wednesday night’s tete-a-tete with Beth Rigby, he was careful to say that there’d be no tax surprises in the manifesto. That much turned out to be true – but he said nothing about what’s going to be in a Labour budget. Could there be a capital gains reform in the pipeline? It may well be the case that we’re on course for a Starmer special, where the man once more runs on one set of promises, only to do something entirely different when in office.

The article was adapted from our newsletter The Cortado. For more general election analysis straight into your inbox, click here.

Ash Sarkar is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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